How sweet it is to cry and water heaven with our tears, romantic poets are wont to say. Such poets venerate tears as “the heart’s own dew” or “summer showers to the soul.”
Yet the sources of our tears are as varied as the mixtures of water, salts, antibodies, and antibacterial enzymes of which they are composed. The rivulets upon our cheeks have their emotional sources in genuine happiness and joy but also in regret, sorrow, guilt, shame, and self-pity.
Tears can be used to deceive others—but also to deceive ourselves. Used as a psychological defense, tears can cover up the lies—or at least the fibs—we tell ourselves. It’s worth looking into this “slight-of-mind” because we become smarter and more insightful every time we catch a glimpse of how our defenses work.
Of course, it’s usually better to cry than to dam up emotions. Crying can be appropriate and healthy, especially when it’s experienced as a deep positive connection with one’s self or others. Tears can also be authentic responses to truth, beauty, kindness, and wonder.
Still, tears can also be slippery accomplices in our unconscious readiness to go on suffering over some unresolved issue. I provide an example below of a woman being deceived by her tears.
Some may think it insensitive of me to find an ulterior motive in her seemingly virtuous tears. Others might declare, “How dare you suggest that her tears aren’t sincere and authentic!” Yet it’s my job to dig deep so clients and readers can understand the cunning self-deception produced by our psychological defenses.
This woman wrote online:
When I saw a slender, Asian woman stand up as the violin soloist at a concert and launch into sound, I welled up with tears. The tears indicated that the situation had meaning for me. I found the precise meaning as I made words for the texture of the feeling: ‘It’s not just that she is a woman, but that she is small and feminine. I can be feminine and be powerful. A small, feminine person can be the vehicle for excellence. I have never seen this before. Always before the vehicle has been a man. Women can do this. I can do this.’
I can tell from this woman’s choice of words (more of which follow below) that she’s likely deceiving herself as to what’s really occurring. Hidden emotional dynamics are at play in her psyche.
Tears well up as she sees the violin soloist performing with talent, excellence, and power. Unconsciously, her tears are likely saying: “That excellence is what I want for myself. That is who I want to be, someone who displays talent and power. I want it so much it moves me to tears.” On a conscious level, this woman does indeed want to be powerful and to perform in her life at a high level of excellence. On an unconscious level, however, she likely remains emotionally attached to an old limited sense of self. Her choice of words suggests that she identifies with herself through feelings of weakness and perhaps even failure.
Her tears, employed as a defense, are saying: “No, I don’t want to identify with my old painful sense of self. I don’t want to be seen in a negative light. I want to exhibit power and excellence, as that woman does. My tears prove how important that is to me.”
She feels good in that moment to the degree that the tears and the sentiment behind them are indeed proving to be effective as a defense that covers up her identification with weakness.
This woman’s psyche is a microcosm of human nature. People find it quite astounding that we could be so conflicted, so much at odds with our best interests. This knowledge bursts the bubble of grandiose self-image.
This woman now goes on to comment in what is a further elaboration of her unconscious defense:
If I had not allowed myself to experience the emotion, to taste the tears and look for words to describe them, I would have been cut off from the profound meanings in the situation, meanings that could affect the entire course of my life. The capacity to feel the meaning in situations, to be moved to tears, is a skill and a gift overlooked in our society. Psychologists and philosophers note the feelings of isolation, alienation, and despair called the ‘existential neurosis’: What’s the meaning of my life? The loss of meaning can be traced to the downplaying of the ability to feel and thus to discover the personal values which can guide meaningful action.
Here she loosely employs truisms to cover up the hidden dynamics. She exalts her tears. She extols her capacity to feel strongly, identifying it as a means to penetrate the meaning of life. Such rationalizations and impressions unwittingly strengthen her defense: “I don’t want to feel like a weak or lesser person. Look at how much pleasure I can experience in my capacity to penetrate the profound meaning of life.”
It’s true, as mentioned, that relief or lightness are often felt when producing such tears and the rationalizations that accompany them. The sense of relief arises because this defense has temporarily worked effectively, enabling body and mind to release some tension or stress. Long term, though, the tears are wasted; one’s awareness remains unchanged and nothing is resolved.
Sadness, whether accompanied by tears or not, can also be used as a defense. One woman had for years felt a deep sadness about her ailing father who, alone much of the time and feeling abandoned, was slowly deteriorating in a nursing home. Certainly, having compassion for the old gentleman is appropriate. But this woman’s sadness was a form of suffering and thereby not a healthy emotional state. How did the sadness arise? Unconsciously, she was identifying with her father and using his experience—feeling alone and abandoned—to experience her own unresolved issues involving abandonment and unworthiness. Her defense claimed: “No, I don’t want to feel abandoned. Look at how sad I am about my father. His plight makes me suffer.” Her sadness was the pound of flesh she offered up to cover up her indulgence, by way of identification, in her father’s suffering.
It’s very important for us to become conscious of misusing tears and indulging in sadness. Beneath tears and sadness we uncover our unconscious readiness to experience an unresolved negative emotion such as rejection, helplessness, unworthiness, or the chronic impression of being seen in a negative light. Growing insight into how we’re unconsciously captivated by these negative emotions has the power to lift us over to a pleasant or at least neutral state of mind.
Like children, adults don’t always think in terms of having a choice when it comes to inner experiences. They just hope their painful emotions subside as soon as possible. But here a choice presents itself: Are you going to be deceived by your tears and sadness or not? Do you want to hold on to an old hurt—an old painful identification—or are you willing to let it go?
The willingness and determination to expose self-knowledge is empowering. The insight gives you the power to say No to the negative experience. You can back away from it as you catch yourself being lured into it and as you understand how you’re drawn into it. You don’t have to choose a positive experience instead. Just decline the negative. Insight or self-knowledge gives you the power to do so, and positive experiences follow once the negative has been “short-circuited” or “zapped” by your awareness.
Tears can also flow when a person experiences a profound sense of relief over good news or when unexpected appreciation and recognition occur. In some instances, the tears would be saying: “I’m crying. Look at how relieved I am that I was recognized and appreciated. I’m so happy that the painful feeling of being ignored and overlooked didn’t happen. That’s what my tears mean.”
The person might feel lighter at this point. Deep down, though, this person was anticipating being ignored and overlooked and had an old personal history with those emotions. Again, the tears, employed as a defense, are saying, “No, no, I’ve always wanted recognition and appreciation. My tears of joy prove how much I want to be appreciated and valued.” In this manner, the underlying attachment to feeling unappreciated and devalued was covered up.
The best tears may be those of realization and insight. American actor Tom Sizemore once said, “I used to blame my problems on other people. But my moment of clarity, if you want to call it that, came when I was looking in the mirror one day and just burst into tears. It wasn’t just that I looked bad, it was that I knew my problem was me.”
That’s a good realization. Blaming is a psychological defense, and Sizemore recognized it in himself. Still, he needs to be careful not to be too hard on himself. It’s not that so much that his problem, to use his words, is “me.” Rather, the problem for all of us arises out of our lack of self-knowledge concerning inner conflict and psychological defenses. A deeper understanding of psychological defenses—including the misuse of tears—sharpens our insight.